President Abraham Lincoln. Photo credit: National Archives.Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we mark today, is justly remembered as our greatest president.  But the shaky beginnings of his presidency, marked by missteps and poor choices, belied his later mastery. In his first seven weeks in office, Lincoln sought to lead a fractious coalition government forged out of a new political party, while facing an incipient rebellion, culminating in the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the outbreak of civil war.

But finally there came a moment when Lincoln, near his own breaking point, seized the mantle of leadership. That moment is worth examining closely.

Lincoln was 52 years old and had been president of the United States for 49 days when he met a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) delegation from Baltimore at the White House on April 22, 1861. The Baltimoreans had come to plead with Lincoln not to send troops badly needed for the defense of Washington through their city—the fifth such delegation to make its way to the White House in three days. But any move around, rather than through, Baltimore, would delay the troop movements, perhaps by days.

Washington needed the reinforcements desperately. The Civil War had begun 10 days earlier at Fort Sumter, and only about 3000 troops were at hand to defend the capital from attack by Confederates across the Potomac River in Virginia. Among these few troops were Kansas militiamen encamped in the White House East Room and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania regiments that had fought their way through a Baltimore mob three days earlier; the Massachusetts men were now billeted on the floor of the United States Senate.

The movement of the troops through Baltimore on April 19—the eighty-sixth anniversary of Lexington and Concord—had left 10 soldiers and 11 or 12 rioters dead.  Local authorities immediately wired the president to “send no [more troops] here,” or even through Baltimore, and went to the White House to plead their case.

At first, Lincoln tried to placate them, as he had been trying to placate nearly all of the contradictory and dangerous forces surrounding him in the weeks since he had become president.

But as early as his second visit on the day following the riot from Baltimore and Maryland officials, Lincoln’s frustration was increasing. When one congressman insisted that no troops should come through his state, Lincoln cried out, “My God, Sir, what am I to do? I had better go out and hang myself on the first tree I come to, than to give up the power of the Federal Government in this way. I don’t want to go through your town, or near it, if I can help it, but we must have the troops here to relieve ourselves, or we shall die like rats in a heap.”

Lincoln’s loose style of administration—at least at this early stage of his presidency—then left him bedeviled by events. When he ordered approaching troops to steer a wide berth around Baltimore, one large force came much nearer than he had intended.

Lincoln expressed both surprise and annoyance at the close approach so soon after the rioting, and ordered that they be pulled back. But dissension began to brew up inside the new government. A private memorandum prepared days later by Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay reported that Army commander Winfield Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron dissented from Lincoln’s order, and there is reason to believe that Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles did also. Seward, echoing the Roman condemnation of Carthage, at some point declared that Baltimore “delenda est”—must be destroyed. Welles, by one report, was so angered that he “jumped up, swung his hat under his arm and hastily walked out, telling them that if that was their policy he would have no responsibility in the matter.”

A former Kansas governor, learning of the proceedings, wrote Cameron that Lincoln’s behavior had been “too weak and lowly for the commander in chief.” Nor was all the grumbling private. A New York Times editorial exclaimed,

Action! action! is the watchword. A pause for an instant is a crime. One life sacrificed to-day will save a hundred to-morrow. The war with all its horrors is the result of inaction.  Mr. Buchanan temporized till the rebellion acquired colossal proportions and great strength. Mr. Lincoln temporized till the storm burst upon him in all its fury.

Attorney General Edward Bates soon expressed his anguish over the same issue in his diary. As he wrote, his anger seems to have built, adding emphasis to words of contrast between the activity of the rebels and the passivity of his own government:

They think and in fact find it perfectly safe to defy the government, And why? Because we hurt nobody; we frighten nobody; and do our utmost to offend nobody. They cut off our mails; we furnish theirs gratis. They block our communications, We are careful to preserve theirs—They assail and obstruct our troops in their lawful and honest march to the defense of this Capitol while we as yet have done nothing to resist or retort the outrage.

They every day are winding their toils around us, while we make no bold effort to cut the cord that is soon to bind us in pitiable impotence.

Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase chimed in, complaining to the president of a lack of coordination between General Scott and the secretary of war.

Lincoln was now isolated within his own official family, and increasingly beyond it, in his continued attempts at conciliation. Notes by Nicolay, written just a few weeks later, recalled a “dreary and anxious Sunday.”

By Monday, April 22, when the YMCA delegation presented itself at the White House, Lincoln’s junior secretary John Hay had lost all patience, terming the visitors “whining traitors.”  Lincoln once again heard out the now-familiar arguments—troops should not be sent through any part of Maryland; the president’s proclamation calling for troops was a provocation; war should be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of the Union.

But this time something in Abraham Lincoln snapped. Rather than collapse again, as he had at least three times in the previous month, Lincoln became not depressed but angry. And in doing so, he seemed to see his duty more clearly.

First, he accused his visitors of hypocrisy:

You, gentlemen, come here to me and ask for peace on any terms, and yet have no word of condemnation for those who are making war on us. You express great horror of bloodshed, and yet would not lay a straw in the way of those who are organizing in Virginia and elsewhere to capture this city.

Next, he claimed his own place, and finally stated clearly what perhaps he had been feeling for some time. He bore responsibilities none of the rest of them faced, and he was going to live up to them:

The rebels attack Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the defense of the Government, and the lives and property in Washington, and yet you would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that—no Jackson in that—no manhood or honor in that.

Standing where Jackson had often stood, in the city named for Washington, Lincoln went on to explain the crisis as it appeared to him, in the earthy terms he preferred—and offered the YMCA men a possible course, and a simple choice:

I have no desire to invade the South; but I must have troops to defend this Capital. Geographically it lies surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory. Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do. But in doing this there is no need of collision. Keep your rowdies in Baltimore, and there will be no bloodshed. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely.

By some accounts he went further, threatening, if resistance did not cease, “I will lay Baltimore in ashes,” and warning that if a reputed force of seventy-five thousand Marylanders rose up, he “presumed there was room enough on her soil to bury 75,000 men.”Eight Weeks In Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition, by Richard J. Tofel

There is no record of what the YMCA group thought of this breathtaking reply. But whatever they thought, they had witnessed Lincoln taking a large stride into war leadership.  Seven weeks after having taken the oath of office, Lincoln was, in an important sense, declaring himself president, and embracing the full powers of the office. War was at hand, and Lincoln seems finally to have glimpsed what such a war might require from him.

There would be fiery trials ahead—Lincoln would not find a satisfactory military commander for more than two more years.  But the greatness we recall had begun to show itself.  Where a new president had rejected a course of action because “there is no Washington in that, there is no Jackson in that,” so his successors now seek to avoid any way in which they see “no Lincoln in that.”

This is adapted from Mr. Tofel’s Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition, published this week as an ebook from St. Martin’s.